My child suffers from school phobia: what to do?

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“Mom, I don’t want to go”. Who has never heard their child say this sentence when getting ready for school? But when the urge to stay at home turns into an inability to walk through the doors of the establishment, there is reason to wonder. This blockage can hide a school phobia.

“One Monday, around 9 am, someone rang the doorbell,” recalls Angélique, 38 years old. “It was Leanne, in tears. I thought our daughter, just 12, had been assaulted or had an accident on the way. But she ended up explaining to me that going to school was beyond her strength. It was mid-October. Leanne was in junior high. She was a pretty good student and had a few girlfriends. We had never worried about her. Looking back, however, I know that she told me about the color, the week of the start of the school year, by saying to me ‘I don’t see myself spending another 6 years of my life at school…’ I thought she joked. But when I think about it, she had multiplied cramps, migraines and crying attacks since the beginning of September. I had even been called by the school nurse several times. I hadn’t taken his pain seriously. But that morning, I realized that I had missed out on his immense distress. ”

What is school phobia?

Affecting 1 to 5% of schoolchildren in Western countries, school phobia is little and poorly understood. “We often hear ‘it’s a whim’, ‘it’s going to pass’, ‘you have to push them around’; judgments that sometimes even emanate from the teaching staff. But these young people are not pretending. They experience such significant mental suffering that they are unable to walk through the door of their classroom or even their school, ”emphasizes Stéphanie Marigliano. For the past two years, the teacher has been accompanying young people aged 12 to 20 within one of the Escale School establishments, dedicated to hospitalized students. The day unit in which she teaches is aimed at young people who have dropped out of school. Among them, a few suffer from “school phobia”.

If the expression is popular with the general public, professionals prefer to speak of “anxious school refusal”. The child psychiatrist Louis Vera explains: “It is not a question of a fear of the school itself, but, in the majority of cases, of an anxiety disorder. And more precisely of separation anxiety ”. An anxiety that is already observed from entering kindergarten. “The child is afraid that something will happen to his parents in his absence. However, at school, he cannot return when he wants or call them to reassure himself, as he would do with a friend for example, which rekindles his concerns ”, continues the child psychiatrist.

But school phobia can also be caused by social anxiety: “The young person is paralyzed by what one can think of him. The fear of making a misstep causes anxiety to the point of fleeing any potentially devastating situation in his eyes, such as going to the blackboard or answering aloud in class. Finally, anxiety can also come from stress experienced at school (learning or attention disorders, relationship difficulties, racketeering, harassment, etc.). ”

One solution: consult

Overwhelmed by his anxieties, the child suffers from nausea, headaches or stomach aches, is seized with dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea… Fluctuating symptoms, according to Louis Vera. “Usually the child is well when he is assured that he will not have to go to school, such as on weekends or during holidays. But from Sunday evening, he starts to worry again. And every morning, during the week, the symptoms come back, to diminish a little when he comes home and to start again at bedtime. It is then that we must consult. When disaster can still be avoided ”.

Because school phobia is a therapeutic emergency. Very quickly, in fact, it can be accompanied by depressive symptoms (withdrawal into oneself, loss of self-confidence, general disinterest, self-destructive behavior, dark thoughts, etc.). “The more the child is absent from school, the more his reintegration will be complicated and the more the resources deployed will be substantial”, observes Louis Vera.

Big resources from which Leanne must have benefited. “Our family doctor, who was thinking of a burnout, kicked her out of school for 3 weeks. The day before the recovery, she was so bad that I understood that something else would be needed. After various consultations, she was hospitalized. It took 6 months before she got back to school, very gradually, ”recalls her mother.

How to rebuild?

Stéphanie Marigliano explains: “The biggest difficulty is that these young people are broken on all sides… They have lost self-confidence, even if most of them could do well in school. In structures such as ours, they divide their day between therapeutic support and academic support. We work on the skills that are found in school curricula, but in a less ‘classic’, more individualized way. We take the young where he is, with his strengths and weaknesses. The goal is for him to regain confidence in himself and in others – including adults – and to experience small satisfactions. In addition, we are also working on socialization ”.

Because besides behavioral and cognitive therapies, an important part of treatment relies on social fabric. “It is essential that the child surrounds himself as much as possible”, confirms Louis Vera. Contrary to what young people often fear, peers react very well to the anguish of one of their comrades. I have seen elementary school children greeted like heroes on their return to school by their whole class. It helps tremendously. Even in adolescence. ”

Leanne knows a thing or two about it. The month before her return to school, she received visits from her classmates twice a week. One at a time first, then in small groups, and finally all together. “She was very moved, recalls her mother. I was worried it would be too much for her, but when they left she told me she couldn’t wait to see them again. I understood she was ready. ”

6 actions to apply without delay

Is your child in the same situation as Leanne? React without further delay!

  1. Discuss with your child as well as with his teachers in order to discover the causes of this anxiety: learning disabilities, bullying, isolation…?
  2. Assure the child of your support without dramatizing, he must understand that school is an obligation, not an option.
  3. Show him that you trust him to find a solution.
  4. Keep him in touch with his classmates.
  5. Consult a psychologist specializing in anxiety issues and / or academic difficulties.
  6. Find out more from associations dedicated to dropping out of school. The social guide lists the school dropout services and day centers for young people who drop out of school. More info here.

Text: Marie Bryon / Coordination: Stéphanie Grosjean

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